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MyView: Advocacy and the ADA Foundation

November 05, 2018

By Richard F. Andolina, D.D.S.

Photo of Dr. Andolina
Richard F. Andolina, D.D.S.
Many of us have invested much time over the years in advocating at both the national and state levels; sometimes by visiting our legislators in their district but often by participating in various Lobby Day events. Our ADA Dentist and Student Lobby Day has become a tremendous success during its two-year infancy. Prior to that time, it was known as the ADA Washington Leadership conference where only dentists participated.

In looking back years ago when I first started attending, I can still recollect the education session where the American Dental Political Action Committee leaders, Council on Government Affairs leaders and members of our ADA Washington office would explain not only the bills or issues we were taking to the Hill, but the importance of how to frame the discussion. When approached, legislators or their staff members' perception can easily skew toward the impression that our efforts are self-centered to create positive change for the profession, while our effort is often aimed at improving oral health care for the public. We need to positively change their perception.

So how should we handle this? The answer was to add what positive ventures have been done by our members, but more importantly, personal experiences that can substantiate our position and concern for the population at large: their constituents. In other words, we needed to tell a story.  

Over the past 25 years, I've had the great fortune of being able to discuss advocacy with dentists of different age groups. Probably the most fulfilling discussions have been with our younger colleagues and our dental students, the future members of our profession. I've been invited numerous times to speak on advocacy and issues facing our profession and the patients we treat at both dental schools and at various American Student Dental Association events, often as a member of a panel discussion.

Two years ago, I was extremely fortunate to serve as the chairman of ADPAC. That year we held the first ever joint advocacy venture with dental student leaders from across the country: the ADA Dentist and Student Lobby Day. So how did we handle the educational session? The same way that had been done in years past — educate everyone on the issues and highlight the great things that our dentists and our organization do for their constituents.

So this begs a question: where do many of these amazing things originate? Many originate from an often forgotten member of our ADA family, the ADA Foundation. Several years ago, I was involved in several discussions with the head of our ADA Washington office, Mr. Mike Graham, and the president of our ADA Foundation, Dr. William Calnon. While all three of us knew well of the relationship of the Foundation successes with our advocacy successes, we realized that we have failed both in educating our members on this and acknowledging the Foundation with the credit they deserve. Simply put: what the Foundation does is extremely beneficial in our advocacy efforts. ADPAC relies on the stories from the ADA Foundation to make our story resonate with legislators and, in turn, help us affect change.

Most people would agree that the philanthropic work done by foundations benefits society. We encounter the good works done by national and local foundations every day, and the stories touch our hearts. But there are additional benefits of this charitable work that are more far-reaching than many of us imagine.

Legislators often don't realize that the ADA family does these amazing things; nor do many dentists, for that matter. What flies under the radar is that many dentists do pro-bono work and volunteer for organizations that provide free oral health services to people in need in their community. When we approach legislators, it is imperative to educate them and their staff members that dentistry's aim is to improve the oral health care of the public.

Simply put, the ADA Foundation supports issues that help improve the public's oral health, and the narrative of this helps us in our overall lobbying on all of the issues — creating positive change for the profession, and also improving the public's access to oral health care. We owe our Foundation a great deal of gratitude.

The Foundation provides more than $2 million in grants, awards and scholarships annually, and facilitates almost $1.5 million in in-kind product donations to Give Kids A Smile program coordinators nationwide each year for over 1,300 GKAS events. We can use this information at a national level or drill down to a state or local level, in order to paint a vivid picture for legislators of the public's need for improved access to care. It is a powerful education for legislators, their staff and health care experts. Additionally, the ADA Foundation provides grants to organizations across the country that are working to improve access to care in their communities, any of which can help us put a face to our lobbying efforts.  

Whereas legislators and policymakers are impressed by Foundation efforts to improve access and treatment of vulnerable populations, the ADA Foundation offers an additional approach to stemming the effects of oral disease.

Namely the game changing research performed by the ADA Foundation Volpe Research Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This research promotes more efficient treatment with increased longevity as well as improved diagnosis and prevention of the disease process.

The ADA Foundation's stories becomes an important tool to help us build a compelling narrative about how we help the public's oral health. Legislators need to hear this, because our patients are their constituents. This helps us convey a complete picture of what the ADA is about and show that collectively, this is what an association can do.  

The Foundation is the story maker, ADPAC is the story teller.

The ADA Foundation is eager to build relationships with state and local dental societies to make this message stronger and more viable in advocacy efforts and support efforts that are best done at the state level and effectively utilize their unique strengths.

Advocacy has been the No. 1 priority of our members. Personally, I don't feel it's any longer the No. 1 priority; it's the No. 1 expectation especially as health care has taken a front-row seat in the political arena. Our members want their concerns and issues heard by our legislators at both the state and national levels. ADPAC is consistently asking for our members' support by making a contribution. As ADPAC chair, I asked and I continue to ask all members to contribute.  

I feel strongly that to be effective, we must also support our ADA Foundation to continue and ultimately improve the great things they do which we can be very proud of. Ultimately, this will increase the effectiveness of our advocacy efforts. Make a difference. Please join those of us who have and continue to support the Foundation for all the great work they do.

Dr. Andolina is the past chair of the American Dental Political Action Committee and past president of the New York State Dental Association.